June 5, 2023

The Sunken Stories and Ancient Wisdom of the Great African Seaforest

Swati Thiyagarajan

“Full fathom five thy father lies: Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange.”

William Shakespeare wrote these words sometime in the early 1600s and expressed in his excellently poetic way a transformation of matter, where life flows in all things and we are all interconnected. Many centuries later, in 2012, a group of humans in Cape Town were individually grappling with changes of our own, struggling to find a deeper connection with the natural world. Awe-inspiring swims in icy water led to the creation of a storytelling project to showcase the wonder of Cape Town’s kelp forests. Next came the decision to establish an organisation that would explore this deep need to find connection, and inspired by Shakespeare, we named it The Sea Change Project (SCP).

For us the metamorphosis would not be just a physical one, but a true change of heart and mind, which ignited a deep curiosity about the interconnectedness of all living beings and a desire to share stories about the miracle that is the living planet.

The Beginning. Photo credit Pippa Ehrlich.

When we originally formed SCP it was a way for us to produce the occasional creative project while immersing ourselves in the kelp forests which we named the Great African Seaforest. As a group we realised that by giving our kelp forests a name we were giving it an unique identity and a presence that connected it to the kelp forests of the world, but also distinguished it as a particular ecosystem found on the shores of Southern Africa. After years of diving in the seaforest we had become deeply attached to her. The animals we encountered were like liquid magicians, both cryptic and curious and as we became more committed to daily observation, diving and tracking, the more the seaforest revealed. We were also pioneering a kind of cold adaptation practice that allowed us to enter this space without wetsuits as semi-aquatic beings. Our daily skin dives entwined us with the lives of all of the non-human beings we encountered, giving us a deep sense of kinship and belonging. This inspired our tagline “Remember you are wild.”

Exploring the depths of The Great African Seaforest. Photo credit Sea Change Project

We quickly realised that the general public did not know much about this ecosystem and that there was still much to discover in these undersea forests and its inhabitants. We were also becoming aware of the shifting baselines: the experience of a person who is entering this ecosystem for the first time and is filled with the wonder of what they were seeing, without realising that it is substantially diminished from what a diver visiting just a generation ago would have experienced. We understood that these shifting baselines would continue to be invisible unless the wonders of the seaforest were regularly recorded, so we could have a timeline of both loss and progress. We noticed what had been lost when we compared unrestricted areas to the spaces that fell within marine protected areas and we saw the potential of what this seaforest could become with long-term, sustained protection.

The biodiversity-rich coastline at the Cape of Good Hope, Table Mountain Nature Reserve. Photo credit Craig Foster.

It became evident that we needed a way to bring that messaging into our work. We also knew that our work needed to be grounded in science and that to some extent we needed to invest in our own marine research too. So we combined our passion for exploration and discovery with science and created the 1001 Seaforest Species project .

This project is a science based endeavour that will find, photograph, describe and classify a thousand and one species in the kelp forest starting with the Octopus as number 1 and the human as number 1001. The name A Thousand and One was inspired from the Arabian Night tales, where a slave girl changes the mind of a cruel emperor through telling him a 1001 stories. She goes from the threat of being beheaded, to becoming his love at the end of the storytelling. We hope our 1001 stories of the Great African Seaforest and its unique biodiversity, allows people to fall in love with nature and change their relationship with her to a more nurturing one.

Photo credit Swati Thiyagarajan.

Our strength lies in storytelling that is informed by science. But what kind of stories to tell? Do we beat the same drum that has been beaten by conservation organisations for decades – even centuries? The beats would say; our planet is under threat, identify those who are responsible, list the dangers and signal solutions. These are all important and powerful messages. There is also the extreme of finger-pointing, accusations and shaming – strategies which have mostly served to polarise and divide in a time when we desperately need unified action. We wondered if
there was space for a new voice within the global conversation about the dangers we face. A voice that spoke to love.

Neurologists know that our decision-making as humans is driven mostly by emotion. We might like to think we rely on logic and facts, and to a small extent we do, but our primary drivers lie in our subconscious: instinct and emotion.
When our Academy Award and BAFTA winning movie My Octopus Teacher became a global phenomenon, we were deeply affirmed, because it meant that our instincts were right. We chose not to follow a traditional conservation narrative and to avoid any direct messaging, and yet this film has been a game-changer for inspiring global support and love for octopuses and the natural world. We realised that we had a very powerful tool for our conservation mission. Because of our lived daily experiences, we had a unique ability to share our joy and wonder with first-hand authenticity, sparking it in our audiences. Good storytelling was the key.

My Octopus Teacher. Photo credit Sea Change Project.

As much of our approach to nature is directly inspired by the indigenous wisdom and practices of First Nations cultures around the world, we have integrated a kind of ritual and spirituality into our conservation work. From the hundreds upon thousands of emails we receive, we see that we have inspired people to change their lives by engaging more with the natural world, healing from emotional and mental trauma and even choosing to study marine biology.

Photo credit Craig Foster.

Our central driving force is to inspire people to re-imagine their own connection to nature. As humans we have that deep need for nature embedded in us, but as we have become more deeply absorbed by the material and technological world, we have somehow forgotten this fundamental truth. Yet, as the human animal, we eat, breathe and drink nature. At the Sea Change Project, we strive to rekindle our genetic memories of a closer and more reciprocal relationship with the natural world. We work closely with the scientific teams responsible for unearthing the incredible stories of how we became the modern human Homo sapiens roughly 300,000 years ago. About another 200,000 years later, so 100,000 years ago, our species then created symbolic-material culture. We did this by taking a pattern from our minds and etching it onto a piece of ochre. We are the only species in the world who has ever represented our thoughts outside of ourselves in this way: the quantum leap in human consciousness. This knowledge was uncovered in caves along the coast of South Africa and has shown this to be the origin of all art and science in the world. DNA studies show that each and every human has an ancestral connection to these shores. This is where our species had an unbroken record of a sustainable and spiritual rapport with nature, for hundreds of thousands of years before the rise of agriculture severed our threads with the wild.

“The greatest landscape for wild nature is the human heart and the greatest landscape for the human heart is wild nature.”

Conservation is the move to protect, preserve and regenerate our natural ecosystems and we believe this is only truly possible when a deep connection is regenerated within: a kind of rewilding of the self. Inspired by nature, grounded in science and guided by indigenous wisdom, we are working on many new projects to bring you more Sea Change stories. Because as Bittu Sehgal, a wonderful conservation mentor, once said: “The greatest landscape for wild nature is the human heart and the greatest landscape for the human heart is wild nature.”

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